A second First Nation has blocked the other access point to Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask megaproject, over concerns a massive shift change will introduce COVID-19 to vulnerable reserves.
Fox Lake Cree Nation decided to launch the new blockade Monday evening, just hours after a Manitoba court authorized the RCMP to arrest anyone blocking access to the Keeyask plant.
The new blockade, on the southern access road, comes after Tataskweyak Cree Nation restricted the northern road Friday to non-Hydro traffic.
The southern road is closer to the Gillam airport, where workers were supposed to start arriving Tuesday from Winnipeg.
RCMP say they’re monitoring the situation and will respect Charter rights, but arrest anyone who puts safety at risk.
The concern stems from Hydro’s planned shift change, which will see as many as 1,200 staff and contractors arrive on the construction site. They will replace the 512 workers who remain on the site as of this past weekend.
Manitoba Hydro convinced public-health authorities to approve the plan, which exempts Keeyask from an ongoing April 16 northern travel ban.
The province also allowed the work camp’s gym and cafeteria to open last month.
The local bands say they’re worried about an outbreak similar to northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, where work camps have been a vector for coronavirus outbreaks in Indigenous communities with limited health-care access.
The four bands say Hydro managers overseeing the project have left them out of the loop.
While Hydro showed the court records of weekly conversations about COVID-19, the Crown corporation has never disputed that it only shared the plan to fly in hundreds of staff after the province had approved it.
Hydro has since changed the plan to have all workers from outside Manitoba self-isolate in Winnipeg for two weeks instead of one, before taking a charter flight.
Hydro expects to fly in 100 to 150 non-Manitobans to the Keeyask site over the first three weeks, of whom fewer than 10 will come from outside Canada.
In an affidavit, Keeyask director David Bowen said there are usually 200 non-Manitobans at the work camp. He specifically cited engineers from Quebec, the province hit hardest by COVID-19. Americans have also worked on the project.
When the four bands asked to meet Hydro CEO Jay Grewal, she instead replied in writing, asking them to stop talking with media.
"The level of disrespect shown by Manitoba Hydro in ignoring community concerns during this pandemic is unacceptable," Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Billy Beardy wrote in a Tuesday news release.
But in an interview, Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said the Crown corporation went beyond provincial approvals to maintain safe protocols at the site, like having truckers stay inside the cab as camp employees unload supplies.
"We’re taking those concerns seriously," Powell said.
"We’ve been in ongoing conversations with all the communities; we’ve made changes to the plan based on input."
Some Keeyask staff said their colleagues did not arrive as planned Tuesday; Powell was not sure whether chartered flights had been postponed or if they arrived at the Gillam airport.
Tataskweyak band councillor Nathan Neckoway said the RCMP has sent its division-liaison team, a cohort of officers that focus on negotiating and de-escalating tense situations.
"We’re not backing down," he said Tuesday. "We’re on treaty land."
The court injunction authorizes the RCMP until May 28 to arrest anyone blocking the northern or southern access roads, and charge them with contempt of court.
The RCMP said they will determine how to implement that injunction.
"The RCMP will continue to monitor the situation and take action on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on enforcement should there be any criminal activities that pose a threat to the safety of individuals or property," wrote Cpl. Julie Courchaine.